When Faith Heroes Fail
and what I learned from one of mine
Here we go again, another round of prominent Christian leaders credibly accused of sexual abuse, spiritual abuse, and general misconduct or abusive leadership styles. Christianity Today, Hillsong (again), Bruxy Cavey of The Meeting House, Preemptive Love. (google them if you must, I don’t want to post links)
Everyone will have their own reaction to these things and mine comes as a person “adjacent” to many of these places. I have written multiple times for CT and internet-know many of the people mentioned in the article. I internet-know people who have worked for Preemptive Love. Some of my mentors are good friends of Bruxy.
Part of me wants to say what the he-ck? Seriously, what on earth? Can people just not keep their hands to themselves? Can men just not say offensive things? Can bosses just not talk about the bodies of their employees or try to pay for sex with teenagers? And whatever happened to “basic” Christian virtues like humility and kindness?
I have attended many churches and worked with many Christian para church organizations. I work on a staff team that includes men. And while of course we don’t always agree on things, we work well together and I have never felt harassed by them. I am realizing more and more how rare this might be, what a circle of quality men I get to be in relationship with.
Maybe part of it has to do with that we are all basically a bunch of nobodies (no insult intended to anyone I work with!). The people I work with are not famous or rich or mega-influential. We are head down, nose to the grindstone, trying to be faithful to God, trying to love our people well. I don’t work around much ego. You don’t move to the Horn of Africa looking to get big.
Those are just a few thoughts from my work experience - creeped out by proximity to some of these things, angry and grieved, and deeply thankful for the people I get to work around. I also have an increasingly strong desire to stay small, to seek out nobodies, to be faithful in my small and beautiful spaces.
In 2019 I published a book called Stronger than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa.
This woman was known as the “Mother Teresa” of Somalis. She is like an Italian Dorothy Day, even to the point of the Catholic Church wanting to canonize her and she, and now after her death her family, refusing to let that happen. She was brave and funny, radical and generous, wild smart and hard working.
The more I researched her life, the more I admired and respected her. And then one day on a train in Italy as I traveled between interviews, I read something that shocked me to the core. I actually gasped and dropped the papers I was reading.
Annalena Tonelli had spent much of the last ten years of her life partnering with Somali medical and religious leaders to fight agains the practice of female genital mutilation. She seemed heroic in this work, and she made a real difference.
Also, almost thirty years earlier, she had hired a midwife to come and cut five Somali girls living in her care when she lived in northern Kenya.
A foreign humanitarian actively participated in circumcising young girls?!
Can you imagine the uproar if this happened in 2022?
I was shocked.
And yet, as I settled back into my seat on the train in Italy, I read more of Annalena’s own writing about this incident. Then I talked to one of the girls who had been cut that day. I talked to other Somalis about it.
Annalena seemed regretful and she did not hide what she had done. She acknowledged that she as she continued to learn, and as the culture continued to change, she changed her mind.
The woman who had been cut bore no ill will toward Annalena and said she felt Annalena had done the right thing for those girls at that time.
Other Somalis said essentially the same thing. They were not shocked and even seemed to appreciate Annalena’s deep cultural understanding of the situation in that location at that time. They said of course now, in 2022 or 2018 when I was writing, it would be much different, but this was nearly 50 years ago in rural Kenya and life was different. One woman even suggested Annalena saved the lives of these girls be ensuring they would remain in good standing in the community even though they were orphans, extremely poor, and were being raised by a foreign Catholic. They would still be able to work, go to school, and get married.
None of them defended FGM now but their perspectives were valuable for me to hear.
I’m not comparing the current scandals and abuses of the western evangelical world to a choice Annalena made in a different culture, different era. And in no way am I defending the behavior of these leaders!
I am simply noting that spiritual heroes will fail in one way or another. (God help us, may fewer of them fail in abusive ways.) Maybe we should stop having heroes.
Annalena acknowledged what she had done and changed. She grew through it without denying it was part of her story.
(Read Annalena’s story in Stronger than Death. This is an incredible story of caring for the “least of these” and you' won’t be able to read it and remain unchanged. I address the issue of FGM in a whole chapter in the book.)
And, she changed. She faced her actions, learned from them, and changed. I see so many leaders lately dig in their heels, or others dig in to defend them or make excuses. This leaves no room for repentance, no room for those who were harmed to be heard, and leaves little chance for positive change.
Jesus spoke woes on those who cause one of these little ones harm. I believe that refers not just to the ones harmed by abuse but also those who turn away from faith because of the overwhelming onslaught of abusive leaders in the church. And by those who cover it up, deny its severity, and refuse to repent.
I know the issues are different, I’m just saying I had a personal experience learning that someone I admired had made what I judged to be a spectacularly bad decision. It shook me. It took a long time and a lot of listening and reflecting to process it.
I’m saying let us be faithful in small things. Let us refuse to cover up our sins or to hide them in the places we work and serve.
I’m sure I’m not talking about this “right” and that there are all kinds of faults to be found in what I’ve just written. I’m processing here on the page, trying to figure out how to think and respond. *sigh*
Have you experienced something like I did that day on the train regarding someone you admired? How did you respond?